Flipping the iceberg on gambling harm, mental health and co-existing issues – at the 2018 International Gambling Conference in Auckland, New Zealand

Researcher Stephanie Bramley from the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at the Policy Institute at King’s College London attended the 2018 International Gambling Conference on Monday 12 February to Wednesday 14 February 2018. This is the first of three posts from the conference. (784 words)

This biennial event was held at the Auckland University of Technology and was an informative three-day conference, this year focusing on flipping the iceberg on gambling-related harm, mental health and co-existing issues. In this blog post I report on day one’s content.

Attendees were encouraged to “join the family” and embrace the notion of family during the conference. The conference was opened by Mana Whenua Matua Bob Hawke who gave us a Maori welcome before Paula Snowden, CEO of the Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand, welcomed delegates.

The first keynote speech was given by Prof. Max Abbott, Co-director of the National Institute for Public Health and Mental Health Research.  He reflected on how gambling and gambling-related harm have changed over the last 40 years and the recent convergence of gambling and gaming. New Zealand is the sixth biggest loser in terms of gambling losses, the United Kingdom is the tenth. Despite this, gambling is rarely seen as a public health issue or priority and he called for gambling to be put on national and international public health agendas, and for early interventions and treatment provision to be extended. Max also contemplated questions relating to how we reduce gambling-related harm if current strategies aimed at  reducing the availability and participation in gambling do not lead to a reduction in harm.  He would like to see more prospective studies which predict problem gambling and a focus on the causes of harm (e.g. social inequality and marginalisation).

Next Richard Taylor and Gareth Bostock in their Ministerial Address put forward the belief that the iceberg can be flipped in relation to gambling-related harm, but close relationships/partnerships are required between regulators and industry in order to create change. Gareth put forward the notion of creating a culture of care in gambling venues, and that regulators should be responsive by identifying risks, prioritising resources to achieve maximum impact and working together with others so as to develop shared goals which may lead to better outcomes in relation to reducing gambling-related harm.

The second keynote speech was given by Dr Lance O’Sulllivan, a medic working in the Far North of New Zealand, where pokie machines and poverty are seemingly interlinked. Lance experienced racism, sexism and classism when growing up in the Far North, and used these experiences as inspiration when trying to give back to society via his job as a GP. Lance argued that, in his experience of practicing medicine in remote areas with high levels of deprivation, he saw gambling venues as ones which “take food out of babies’ mouths and take warmth out of homes” and witnessed the impact of gambling on poverty-related diseases, especially among children and young people. Lance called for strong political leadership on the regulation of pokie machines.

The next keynote speech was given by Dr Vladimir Poznyak from the World Health Organisation (WHO). He noted that “gambling has not and is still not a priority for the WHO”. However he acknowledged the WHO’s roles in recognising gambling disorder and gambling-related harm as significant public health issues, on a par with substance-related disorders; placing gambling and gambling-related harm on global and national public health agendas; working with WHO member organisations to include gambling in mental and public health plans; promoting research that contributes to evidence-based gambling policy, prevention and treatment and collaborating with relevant organisations and individuals to advance knowledge within this field. He acknowledged some limitations of current prevalence studies on problem gambling and gambling but outlined several priorities for international research including developing a scientific basis for guidance on health patterns of digital technological usage; developing international screening instruments for gambling and gaming disorders and their effectiveness; evaluating policy options and evaluating the of effectiveness of treatment options.

Next, a lived experience panel highlighted some of the problems faced by people affected by gambling-related harm. The speakers highlighted the value of being able to find a suitable gambling support service or counsellor, being able to build a trusted therapeutic relationship with their counsellor, the value of seeking clients’ opinions when designing research projects and gambling support services, and they called for more education in schools about gambling related harm and provision of support.

Day one concluded with the first concurrent session of presentations. In this I heard presentations from Laura Kay (Salvation Army Oasis) and Edmond Fehoko (AUT).  Laura spoke about a community radio show which she had developed in order to inform the local community about topics relating to gambling and gambling-related harm. Edmond spoke about Tongan male experiences and perceptions of gambling in NZ.  He mentioned that Pacific people were 4-6 times more at risk of gambling related harm compared to NZ Europeans.

A great start to the conference!

[Day two]

Stephanie Bramley is a researcher at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at the Policy Institute at King’s College London. Learn more about her gambling study